The Silk Road - A Superhighway of Ideas and Trade

For 2,000 years, the Silk Road has been a conduit for economic, cultural, political and religious interactions between East and West.
Marcia Wendorf

The Silk Road allowed the exchange of science, technology, language, culture, philosophy, and religious beliefs between the societies along its route. Our modern world wouldn't be what it is today without it.

The Silk Road extended from China on the east to the Mediterranean sea on the west, as shown in the map below.

Extent of the Silk Road
The extent of the Silk Road Source: Kelvin Case/Wikimedia Commons

The Silk Road began during China's Han dynasty, which ran from 207 BCE to 220 CE. The China Silk Road continued to be used all the way into the 18th century, and it connected Asia, Persia (present-day Turkey), the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Southern Europe.

The Silk Road got its name from the trade-in silk, which was first developed in China; however, trade-in spices between India and Arabia and the Roman Empire was far more extensive than the trade-in silk.

Dotted along the Silk Road were a series of trading posts, roads, and markets that supported the transportation, storage, exchange, and distribution of goods. These included the Greco-Roman city of Antioch, Ctesiphon the capital of Parthia, and Seleucia on the Tigris River.

Caravan outside Morocco
Caravan outside Morocco Source: Edwin Lord Weeks/Wikimedia Commons

What was traded on the Silk Road

During the second millennium BCE, Chinese soil was low in the mineral Selenium, which caused muscular weakness and reduced growth in their horses. This was a distinct handicap for their warriors. The nomads of the neighboring central Eurasian steppes were known for breeding healthy and robust horses, so trade developed along the Silk Road, with the nomads selling the Chinese horses, along with:

  • Saddles
  • Grapevines and grapes
  • Animal furs and skins
  • Honey and fruit
  • Glassware, especially Roman glassware which was highly prized
  • Wool blankets, rugs, and textiles
  • Gold and silver.

Besides silk, goods moving east to west from China along the Silk Road included:

  • Paper
  • Gunpowder
  • Rice
  • Tea
  • Dyes
  • China, such as plates, bowls, cups and vases and porcelain
  • Spices, such as cinnamon and ginger
  • Precious gems.

Also being traded at this time was nephrite jade, which was mined in China, and Lapis lazuli and Spinel, which were mined in Badakhshan, modern-day northeastern Afghanistan, eastern Tajikistan, and the Tashkurgan county in China.

Remnants of Chinese silk dating to 1070 BCE have been found in Egypt. Chinese silks and Greek bronzes have been also found at a burial site dating to the sixth century BCE near Stuttgart, Germany.

Woven silk
2nd century BCE woven silk Source: DSC02641/Wikimedia Commons

 Silk Road history

Between 500 and 330 BCE was the period of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Darius I in Persia, in what is today modern-day Iran and Turkey. The "Persian Royal Road" ran 1,775 miles (2,857 km), all the way from the city of Susa, which was east of the Tigris River, to the port of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir) on the Aegean Sea. Smaller Silk Road trade routes connected Mesopotamia to India, and North Africa via Egypt.

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Persian Royal Road
Persian Royal Road Source: Mossmaps/Wikimedia Commons

Fresh horses and riders were placed at stations along the Royal Road, allowing a courier to make the trip in just nine days. The Greek writer Herodotus, who lived between 484 and 425 BCE, described the road in his Histories:
"There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed."

The U.S. Post Office adopted almost the same lines as its creed:
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

From 329 BCE to 10 CE the Macedonian Empire under Alexander the Great extended from Greece all the way to Central Asia in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. The Greek historian Strabo wrote of the Macedonian Empire: "They extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni."

Mosaic of Alexander the Great House of the Fuan, Pompeii
Mosaic of Alexander the Great House of the Fuan, Pompeii Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Roman historian Florus described visits of envoys from China to the court of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180 CE, sent ambassadors to the court of Chinese Emperor Huan of Han, and Roman glassware has been found in tombs near Nanjing and Luoyang, China dating to between 25 and 220 CE.

Technology on the Silk Road

The Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE started increasing the trade of technology on the Silk Road between Rome and China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa. This kicked off a craze among Roman women for silk, which at the time, the Romans believed came from trees.

It took the writer Pliny the Elder to set the record straight when he wrote: "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk." To get their hands on silk, the Romans traded spices, glassware, and perfumes.

It was during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527 - 565 CE) who reigned from the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) that spies disguised as monks were sent to China to steal silkworm eggs. They managed to smuggle some back, and silk production began in the northern Grecian city of Thrace, but its quality was inferior to that of Chinese silk.

Chinese silk moths
Chinese silk moths Source: Bibliographisches Institut/Wikimedia Commons

Coins dating from the reign of Byzantine ruler Justinian II, who reigned between 565 and 574 CE, have been found in a Chinese tomb in Shanxi province dating to the Sui Dynasty (581618 CE).

It was during the 7th century under the Tang Dynasty that the Silk Road reached its golden age. A consortium of Sogdians living in present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Göktürks from present-day Turkey were the main caravan merchants along the Silk Road.

Between 1,271 and 1,295, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to travel the Silk Road to China. He recorded this journey in The Travels of Marco Polo, and it informed Europeans about life in China, Persia, India, and Japan.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo Source: Grevembrock/Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1340s, traders exposed to marmots in Central Asia carried the Black Death along the Silk Road and back to Europe. The fall of the Mongol Empire further disintegrated trade, and the Silk Road fell into disuse.

The Silk Road today

The creation in 1990 of a railway through China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia called the Eurasian Land Bridge, is sometimes referred to as the "New Silk Road". The last link was the connection of the railway systems of China and Kazakhstan. In October 2008, the first Trans-Eurasia Logistics train reached Hamburg, Germany from Xiangtan, China.

In July 2011, a freight service connecting Chongqing, China with Duisburg, Germany, began. It cut the travel time of goods from 36 days by a container ship to just 13 days by a freight train. In 2013, Hewlett-Packard began transporting its laptop computers and monitors along this rail line, and in January 2017, the service reached London.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for a New Silk Road connecting China and Europe. On November 6, 2019, the first Chinese freight train arrived in Ankara, Turkey, and one left from there, completing the "Silk Railway".

Running beneath the Bosphorus in Istanbul's Marmaray Tunnel, China's Railway Express will connect Prague, the Czechia with Zian, the capital city of Shaanxi Province in central China.

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